Is U.S. Casualty Reporting Suffering from Double Standards?

The war in Iraq has highlighted how reporting on casualties during an armed conflict is a sensitive issue. In the United States, a norm has developed that immediate family members should not have to learn through the media of their loved one’s death in a military operation. Since the war in Vietnam, another norm also has developed: that U.S. blood is rarely shown. Few U.S. wounded or dead appear in digital color on our TV screens. These U.S. norms underlie much of the outrage at independent Arab television Al Jazeera Satellite Channel’s broadcast of images of U.S. dead and prisoners of war. But this outrage masks a potentially more serious issue that should concern all citizens: Have the U.S. media been so wrapped in the flag of late that they have lost objectivity and are undercutting the informed nature of our citizenry?

One look at the inconsistent application of the norms over the past decade raises the suspicion that the answer to that question is affirmative.

In 1993, for example, our media took the risk of widely showing grisly war images of U.S. casualties abroad. U.S. forces had been in Somalia just under a year and were several months into a campaign to track down and capture faction leader Mohamed Farah Aideed. As immortalized in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Black Hawk Down, their Oct. 3 raid did not go as planned, with 18 dead, 70 wounded and one captured American and an unconfirmed number of Somali victims.

In a taste of the globalization of information technology, U.S. networks received video from Somalis. The first video showed a crowd of angry Somalis chanting and dancing around the body of a dead U.S. soldier. Debate raged in U.S. newsrooms over using the pictures. Serious concerns weighed against running the video: It would be insensitive to the victim’s family; it could exacerbate fears of other families and the military community; and it would play into the hands of Aideed’s propaganda machine. CNN, other networks, and the print media pondered these issues and determined that their utmost obligation was to keep people informed. The images were deemed to carry invaluable information and to show the reality of war. Therefore, they ran on all networks throughout the day of their release. Meanwhile, most newspapers printed photos of the incident on the front page, although mainly in black and white, to dampen their impact.

The next day the nightmarish coverage heightened when CNN aired a tape provided by Aideed’s faction. The tape was of captured U.S. Army Capt. Michael Durant, a Black Hawk pilot. It showed him severely beaten. The tape, although made for propaganda purposes, was broadcast throughout the day in the United States. America’s objective journalists had plastered the airwaves with video of a beaten U.S. soldier, provided by the captors, with no mention that this filming might violate the Geneva Convention’s terms banning use of prisoners for propaganda purposes.

But a decade later, in the war with Iraq, major media shunned similar war footage. Several days into the war, Al Jazeera aired a six-minute tape showing four dead U.S. soldiers and five prisoners of war (POWs). All were members of the 507th maintenance unit that Iraqi forces had ambushed near Nasariya, Iraq. This broadcast led to vitriolic reaction from the Pentagon–and then the U.S. press–as an outrage, immoral, and a breach of the Geneva Convention.

The U.S. networks agreed to a Pentagon request to hold onto the tape until families could be notified. (When approached, Al Jazeera agreed as well to delay further broadcasts until after notification.) After family notifications, broadcasts to U.S. viewers provided only limited portions of the tape showing the POWs. These broadcasts almost uniformly were accompanied by commentary that the Iraqis violated the Geneva Convention. However, the portion of the tape showing the four dead bodies never reached the mainstream U.S. audience. One predictable exception was media critic Matt Drudge’s website, which carried the video in its entirety. During the process, the networks, it seems, collectively decided that the U.S. public is not mature enough to endure images reflecting the grim realities of combat.

Veteran correspondent Ted Koppel disagreed with the decision, arguing that death and destruction is a warfare consubstantial and that people are entitled to make their own choices about seeing that reality. But the prevalent media opinion was certainly different: The pictures were said to be simply “too gruesome” to be shown to the public. ABC’s Charles Gibbons argued that showing the inhumanity portrayed by the tape served no purpose and that airing the POW segment was a violation of the Geneva Convention. On CNN, Aaron Brown chastised Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief for choosing to broadcast the entire segment. In response, the bureau chief argued that U.S. media outlets displayed double standards, willing to show Iraqi prisoners of war and casualties or dead Somalis, but not images of the United States’ own.

The networks should be commended for thinking about the consequences of airing that specific segment. Airing propaganda pieces has military and political implications. Both Aideed and Iraq sought to shatter the United States’ will to fight by exposing its dead soldiers and prisoners of war. In each case, the networks could play into the enemy’s hands when deciding whether or not to show the pictures. So why the difference in their decisions then and now?

In 1993, the government did not firmly lead, while the nation was divided over the operation and whether it was worth U.S. lives. Today, although somewhat divided as evidenced by anti-war protests, the nation is being strongly led and little tolerance exists for public questioning of the U.S. military. Amid advice that not being patriotic enough will be bad for business, U.S. media outlets seem to be competing for a place among the most patriotic news sources.

This raises a fundamental question as to the nature of journalism in a free and democratic society. Should U.S. will and casualty tolerance be the deciding factor of journalists striving for objectivity? What is the role of an objective media? Is it to broadcast uncritically, no matter the source? Clearly it is not. Is it to follow guidance from the U.S. government and wave the flag? One hopes it is not. But that is what we have seen recently in regards to the casualty footage. Through their coverage, the U.S. media are undercutting their standing as an objective source of news and are undermining the basis for American democracy, with implications for years to come. While democracy relies on an informed public, U.S. media outlets today appear more as tools of the U.S. government’s perception management campaign than objective sources of reports and analysis of the world situation. The United States–and the world–will suffer from this fall from the pedestal of journalistic ideals.